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Benjamin Alire Sáenz Aristotle and dante discover the secrets of the universe

The E-block assembly in the Roberts-Dubbs Auditorium was the first block presenting the multi-award winning author Benjamin Alire Sáez. English teacher Evan Mousseau introduced the author and thanked the librarians and the English Curriculum Coordinator Mary Burchenal for diversifying the English curriculum.

"The fever was back. I thought that maybe nothing would ever be the same. But I knew it was just the fever. I fell asleep again. The sparrows were falling from the sky. And it was me who was killing them," (78).

Mousseau said that while many readers think that “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is about being Latino, gay, or an adolescent, the book is primarily about being human. Mousseau also stated that the novel offered a mirror for the students to see themselves represented in the assigned reading books.

"Even when I wanted to hate my mother, I loved her. I wondered if it was normal for fifteen-year-old boys to love their mothers. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't," (138).

Sáez began his presentation by saying that doors opened for him because he was a reader. He grew up on a poor farm with an outhouse and read just about everything, from “The Exorcist” to “Great Expectations.” He knew that the world was bigger than his world, and that the only way to access that world was through books.

"Maybe the dream came from a memory. Dreams don't come from nowhere. That's a fact," (178).

Although Sáez was a natural writer, he did not start writing formally until he was 30 years old. After leaving his position as a Catholic priest in El Paso, Texas, he spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student and then was awarded the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

"Senior year. And then life. Maybe that's the way it worked. High school was just a prologue to the real world. Everybody got to write you- but when you graduated, you got to write yourself. At graduation you got to collect your teacher's pens and your parents' pens and you got your own pen. And you could do all the writing," (335).

Sáez said that his first book of poems, “Calendar of Dust,” launched his literary career and that he could transcend his life by writing books that others can relate to. It was initially hard for him to censor himself and come to terms with his sexuality. He was sexually abused as a child and his original outlet was writing stories inside of his head. Sáez joked that “Dante was his coming out party,” and solemnly told the audience that he almost did not write his novel.

"All this time I had been trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart. All of the answers had always been so close and yet I had always fought them without even knowing it," (358).

After Sáez presented his story, Mousseau led a brief Q&A session. Among his more notable answers, Sáez said that he was “more like Dante” since he was an artist, but he is also always doubting himself like Aristotle, and that “the birds” that Dante was quite fond of were entirely his idea.

Question and Answer

What is your book about?

The book is about a young man Ángel Aristotiles. He’s 15. He hates himself, he’s miserable and he lives in El Paso Texas. {He} hates himself, questions everything about himself. He moves from hating himself {to} accepting himself and loving himself. The way he does is he comes to accept the fact that the boy who loves him, he loves back. He allows himself that, and he also falls in love with his parents.

Is your book based on anything in your life?

Aristotle and Dante are parts of me. The personality is me. This me split in half and that part is the true part, but anything that happened--that’s all fiction. The part of me that’s Aristotle is always questioning myself, always doubting myself, never believing in myself, kind of hating myself. I don’t have any friends, feel lonely, feel sad, feel sorry for myself – all that kind of thing. Then, there's the Dante part of me that is creative. I’m a poet, I’m an artist, I have lots of friends. It seems that I’m easygoing and free and yet it only seems that way sometimes. I’m both of them.

What made you want to be a writer and write your book?

It’s just that I’ve always loved books. I thought that books say something to me about the world that I couldn’t experience. Books have always taught me, given me access to experiences that I can’t really access on my own. I love books so it came natural that I would want to write them. It's the media that I love.

Where do you get your idea to write Dante and Aristotle?

It was just in me. I just started writing it and I don’t know, I don’t know where that came from--it came from me, I guess. It was just there, ready for me to just do it and I don’t really know to be honest, it was just ‘oh my God, there it is.’ It was a long process, but it just came. It wasn’t a difficult book to write.

What was your writing process like?

I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, a cigarette, I start writing early and I write for four hours straight sometimes five – everyday. Not on weekends--sometimes I travel so I don’t write then. I never travel when I write. I read a lot in the evenings. I don’t have a television. I sometimes take notes on what I’m working on in the evening. In my head, I’m always writing.

Have any writers or books inspired you in your books?

Every writer has inspired me and influenced me. I don’t know how that works, but I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without having read all those books I’ve read. “Grapes of Wrath,” Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “Love In the Time of Cholera” and “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and poetry books, all kinds of poetry books, especially the books of Pablo Neruda. They’ve taught me what it means to be a human being, all of them do and that’s important to me. If we all learned how to be human beings maybe we would value each other more. We’d treasure each other more and we’d hurt each other less. Being a human beings means to understand the struggles of our own hearts and then connect with the struggles of the hearts of other people. That connection is really important because being a human being means we were meant to connect with each other. We’re built for connection. Ari and Dante learn how to be themselves, learn how to be man and learn how to be human. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to connect? What does it mean to be in love?

What do you hope people take away from your book?

I hope they take away a sense of gratitude and compassion and joy. Celebrating that love because they’re celebrating themselves and their capacity to love. I’ve very grateful that I have a huge readership and a I’m very proud to have written a book that so many people respond to I think in very profound ways.

What would you say to an aspiring writer?

Don’t be in a hurry. There’s no rush. Learn your craft before you try to call yourself a writer. Once you’ve learned your craft, only then send your book out to be published. Don’t get ahead of yourself. If you want to be a writer just because you want to see your name in print or because you want to be famous, or because you think its glamorous – forget about it. Don’t become one. You have to love what you do and you have to know what you're doing period. Do it for it’s own sake.

What would you say to someone who won’t read your book because of what it’s about?

They’re closed minded. If your heart is made of stone then your heart is made of stone but don’t pretend it’s made of flesh.

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